1:29 PM CDT, August 5, 2010
Far too much of the loosely factual Internet-porn origin myth "Middle Men," set on the fringes of the 1990s adult-entertainment industry in Southern California, is relayed through voice-over narration read by Luke Wilson. Nobody minded when Ray Liotta took care of similar narrative duties in Martin Scorsese's "GoodFellas," a clear stylistic reference point for "Middle Men" co-writer and director George Gallo, whose screenwriting credits include "Midnight Run" and "Bad Boys." Here, you put up with prosaic generalities ("Like all addictions," we're told, making millions in online pornography "sneaks up on you slowly") and teases along the lines of "What I heard next, I could not believe."
Who would have believed a film with this much skin and reckless, life-threatening excess could end up a rather dull muddle? "Middle Men" takes you back to a time before people used their credit cards to buy goods and services online, porn-related or otherwise. This is the e-commerce edition of "Boogie Nights," conceived for series television (where it might've taken a more satisfying narrative shape). Wilson's character is a Houston businessman who is sucked into the fledgling online porn industry while helping out a nightclub owner associate. As the fix-it wizard and middle man, he shores up the chaotic and drug-addled business practices of scuzzballs played by Giovanni Ribisi (to the scuzz manor born) and Gabriel Macht. These two get in bed with the Russian mob; soon enough, Wilson's Jack Harris is eyeing a much-younger porn starlet ( Laura Ramsey) and attracting the interest of the feds.
Gallo has talent but little visual selectivity. I think it was a mistake to shoot "Middle Men" in a style suggesting the paranoiac fever state of its itchiest, sweatiest characters. Also, Wilson just isn't enough. In comedies his easygoing approach often provides relief from more strenuous cohorts, but in dramas he has trouble suggesting the inner tensions of an outwardly cool cat. This movie has everything a movie needs except a workable storyline and a compelling core. In the first 20 minutes, "Middle Men" tosses out so many explanatory flashbacks, you think to yourself: Will Wilson ever shut up with the voice-overing? Kelsey Grammer, though, helps out with a sharp cameo as a Texas politician in need of a comeuppance. And James Caan (as a shady attorney with a grudge) has a way of pronouncing the word "alas" that says a lot about the word and the man saying it.
MPAA rating: R (for strong sexual content, nudity, language, drug use and violence)
Cast: Luke Wilson (Jack Harris); Giovanni Ribisi (Wayne Beering); Gabriel Macht (Buck Dolby); James Caan (Jerry Hagerty); Jacinda Barrett (Diana Harris); Laura Ramsey (Audrey Dawns)
Credits: Directed by George Gallo; written by Gallo and Andy Weiss; produced by Christopher Mallick, William Sherak, Jason Shuman and Michael J. Weiss. A Paramount Pictures release. Running time: 1:53.